LENOX — Convenient or not, we all need to resume wearing face coverings indoors at public places.
Whether or not an official requirement is needed here in the Berkshires, of course, is up to health authorities and local governments. But, based on my informal survey at several local supermarkets on Friday, many shoppers again are choosing to protect themselves — about half, it seemed.
Although Berkshire County has joined nearly all Massachusetts counties in the “substantial” risk category for COVID and its rampant delta variant, much of that is caused by the disturbing, unexplained outbreak at the North Adams Commons Nursing & Rehabilitation Center. There are 43 confirmed cases among its 91 residents, most of whom were fully vaccinated, and nine among employees, according to Berkshire Healthcare’s dashboard.
With schools and colleges reopening in just several weeks, an action plan has to be implemented with mandates not only for masking, but also for vaccinations. If some of you are inclined to protest, citing individual freedom as a deeply ingrained American privilege, I don’t have any sympathy. We all must be licensed if we drive, insured if we buy a home, and inoculations against a variety of diseases are required of nearly all schoolchildren.
We’re fortunate to live in a state with high vaccination rates — 75 percent of the population 18 and up, and 55 percent of Massachusetts residents ages 12 to 17. But, the Bay State is not an oasis, given the crush of visitors enjoying vacations this summer in the Berkshires, the Cape, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.
There’s no doubt that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are highly effective against serious disease leading to hospitalizations and death. So, here’s an action plan to consider, based on the follow-the-science facts while acknowledging that medical research is constantly evolving with new data.
1) Following North Adams Mayor Tom Bernard’s admirable lead requiring visitors to public buildings to be masked, municipal leaders in our other 31 communities should adopt the same policy. Furthermore, all local government meetings, whether held in person or remotely, must be made available via Zoom, to allow residents to observe and to participate during public comment.
2) School districts need a required face-covering policy, even for older students who have been jabbed twice and are fully protected three weeks after their second shot. The state education department strongly recommends indoor masking for all children through grade 6, since they’re not eligible for vaccine until they turn 12. The recommendation also applies to older unvaccinated youngsters and to staff.
The Massachusetts Teachers Association urges mandatory universal masking in all public schools through college. Local district leaders and school committees would be well-advised to take this to heart.
3) Vaccination for students and staff should be widely required, including colleges and universities.
The Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, Williams College and Bard College at Simon’s Rock have mandatory inoculation requirements for all students. At Williams, President Maud Mandel announced on June 1 that faculty and staff also must provide proof of COVID-19 vaccination, although employees can request exemptions on medical or religious grounds or due to “strongly-held beliefs on the subject.”
Berkshire Community College “strongly encourages” vaccination for students and staff. BCC should make it a requirement.
4) Proof of vaccination should be widely adopted as standard procedure at indoor public gathering locales — museums, theaters, concert halls, sports arenas and stadiums. Those who resist inoculation ought to be unwelcome in order to eliminate super-spreader occasions, such as Provincetown experienced last month and Sturgis, S.D., is about to endure this weekend.
The Sturgis motorcycle rally is revving up with an estimated 700,000 bikers attending, including the state’s Republican governor, Kristi Noem. Other recent, highly irresponsible events have included the recent Lollapalooza music festival at Grant Park in Chicago that attracted a tightly packed crowd of nearly 400,000.
5) Privately owned restaurants and retail stores have to make individual decisions on whether to admit unmasked patrons indoors. Owners who resist re-imposing masking should post signage: “Dine at Your Own Risk.”
It’s encouraging that vaccination rates are picking up in states where a majority of residents resisted the shots.
Alex Azar, the secretary of Health and Human Services under former president Donald Trump, wrote in a revealing New York Times op-ed on Thursday: “The coronavirus is nonpartisan. It makes no judgment about one’s political leanings. The vaccines that were developed to fight this virus have no political bias, either. And yet the reluctance and even refusal of many Americans — including many of my fellow conservatives and Republicans — to get a Covid-19 vaccine is a frustrating irony for those of us who worked to expedite these vaccines.”
Azar, who takes credit for overseeing vaccine development, testing, approval and distribution from April 2020 until January, wrote that he “watched with pride as vaccination rates rose through the early months of the year, and then with dismay as the daily number of vaccinations declined. Any claims that the vaccines are unsafe or ineffective, or that corners were cut are not true.”
Operation Warp Speed cost more than $2 trillion.
“We could have done a better job in reminding the media and the public of all that could go wrong with vaccine development and manufacturing,” Azar conceded. “We also should have explained more clearly the operational complexities that would accompany a large scaling up of distribution. We could have done more to address vaccine hesitancy. We did not predict the politicization of vaccines that has led so many Republicans to hold back.”
Since vaccination “is an absolute necessity to end the pandemic,” Azar stressed, “conservatives need to do our part, and the Biden administration must find voices that will be trusted in conservative communities to explain the data and integrity of the vaccine programs. They would also do well to continue to acknowledge the historic achievement of the Trump administration in expediting these vaccines. I’m not naïve about the partisan issues and the mistrust between parties at play — but a measure of political graciousness could go a long way to depoliticize the issue.”
He’s right. But, I’d go a step further. Here’s the bottom line: Getting fully vaccinated is the ultimate test of patriotism.